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CONGRESS PREPARING FOR A FIGHT OVER HOW TO USE ANY DEFENSE CUTS

SHARE CONGRESS PREPARING FOR A FIGHT OVER HOW TO USE ANY DEFENSE CUTS

Battle lines in Congress are already being drawn over whether and how to spend the money the Bush administration plans to slice off next year's Pentagon budget.

On one side are lawmakers who say liberalization in Eastern Europe means the defense cuts should be large, and who want to use the money to beef up education, child care and other domestic programs that have been pinched in recent years."If the tearing down of the Berlin Wall means nothing more than we put the USS Missouri in mothballs, we will not have accomplished much," says liberal Rep. George Miller, D-Calif.

Arrayed against them are others who want to use the savings to reduce the 1991 deficit to $64 billion, a goal universally seen as difficult yet one that is required by the Gramm-Rudman balanced-budget law.

"There seems hardly any room for discussion that the . . . defense savings go to anything but deficit reduction," says Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., ranking Republican on the Senate Budget Committee.

Dangling somewhere in between are senators and representatives who will be wary of defense cuts that affect military bases or contractors in their home districts.

"The light bulb in their heads says jobs," says Ellen Nissenbaum, a lobbyist for programs for low-income people.

While Congress just finished its 1990 budget work on Nov. 22, the administration is already sketching out its spending blueprint for fiscal 1991, which begins next Oct. 1. That document will be presented to Congress on Jan. 22.

Defense Secretary Dick Cheney is reportedly preparing budget plans that will pare up to $180 billion from planned Pentagon spending through 1994.

Even if carried to the maximum, such cuts would reap little savings next year because of the nature of defense spending.

In any given year, much of it is carried over from previous commitments - such as an aircraft carrier on which construction began two years ago - or is contained in difficult-to-break, long-term contracts stretching into the future. Even laying off troops brings with it offsetting expenses such as retirement payments, unemployment benefits and other costs.

Because of that, the consensus among lawmakers and lobbyists is the reductions are likely to rein military spending by no more than $3 billion to $8 billion next year out of a nearly $300 billion Pentagon budget.